What’s Up with “Auld Lang Syne?”


Here’s a good question to ring in the new year: Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

On second thought, that’s a dumb question — of course not. Definitely rhetorical.

So, I’ve got a blog about language, words, grammar, and writing. It’s new years day, and I need a topic. What’s the obvious solution? You got it: Auld Lang Syne!

Here’s the scoop on the song we all sing with great gusto as we smooch our beloveds when the Times Square Ball hits bottom.  We don’t know what it means, but somehow it seems like the right song and the right tune. It’s not even English, is it?

No, it’s Scots, which is pretty close to English — sort of a heavy dialect that the Scottish poet Robert Burns used in most of his poems. The most famous of these, of course, is “Auld Lang Syne,” which he wrote in 1788. Burns never really took credit for it, though. He just put down the words to a song that had been around for some time. When he sent it to a publisher, he included this note: “The following song, an old song, of the olden time … has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” It seems like at least some of the later verses were written by Burns himself, however.

Translated, the words literally mean old, long, since. But it’s an idiom that means more precisely “days gone by” or “long ago times.” So, “for auld lang syne” means roughly “for old times’ sake.” And that’s what makes it an appropriate song for New Year’s Eve.

Burns didn’t write the melody. In fact, nobody really knows what the original melody was, but the tune we use now is the same everywhere and has endured for a long time. The “fight song” of the University of Virginia (my alma mater), which they call “The Good Ol’ Song,” uses the same melody.

It was band leader Guy Lombardo who made the song famous in the U.S. and established the tradition of singing it at the stroke of midnight. The tradition began during his New Years radio broadcast in 1929.

One last note. The last word of the title is pronounced sign, not zyne. It shouldn’t sound like you’re saying “Old Lang’s ine.” Like some old guy named Lang is in possession of an ine. Whatever that is.

Thanks to Wikipedia for most of this info!


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. jennifer

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but never knew you were a fellow alumnus- WaHooWa!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-04-2012

      College of Arts and Sciences, class of 1988. How about you?

      How ’bout that basketball team? 🙂

      • jennifer

        Arts and Sciences ’89 – small world!

  2. Morgan

    Interesting article! I’ve always wondered what “auld lang syne” meant and where it came from. So now I know!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-03-2012

      Thanks for the comment, Morgan. It’s good to know stuff!

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